Friday 25 December 2009

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Director: Sidney Lanfield
Stars: Richard Greene, Basil Rathbone and Wendy Barrie
I have no idea if Guy Ritchie's much anticipated revisiting of Sherlock Holmes is any good, given that it only came out today and I haven't seen it yet, but it's managed one huge achievement for sure. It triggered TCM to treat us with nothing less than a 24 hour marathon of Holmes movies, including all fourteen of the pairings of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce between 1939 and 1946, plus a 1931 British film and a silent version with John Barrymore from 1922, among others. That's the sort of Christmas present I'll relish if only I can clear enough space on my DVR to record them all. It's always been surprising that TCM have never showed The Hound of the Baskervilles before, being one of the cornerstones of the detective genre in film, and sure enough this is its long overdue premiere showing.

It was the first time Basil Rathbone had played Sherlock Holmes and he has Nigel Bruce as his long suffering assistant Dr Watson from moment one, but at this point in time he wasn't even the star, the young Richard Greene top credited as Sir Henry Baskerville a decade and a half before he found fame on television as the title character in The Adventures of Robin Hood. We get to Baskerville Hall before he does, being privy to the death of his father Sir Charles Baskerville, apparently from a heart attack, Sir Henry being away in Canada. Of course he's summoned back home to assume his title and family estates, but it's quickly obvious that someone doesn't want him to get to them.
At this point we'd be excused for mistaking this film for something else entirely, because the Dartmoor of 1889 is a sparse fog enshrouded wasteland, a typical location for thirties Hollywood to chill our bones in. The howling of a hound and the appearance of a ragged and bearded thief makes us wonder for a moment if we're watching another sort of movie entirely. It could easily be a Universal horror movie, as after all Rathbone's previous picture saw him playing Baron Wolf von Frankenstein in Son of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man was only two years away. Sure enough such influence continues and escalates. Once Sir Henry arrives in Engand, it doesn't take too long for someone to throw a threatening note into his coach or prepare to shoot him from a passing hansom, and there's even sinister old Lionel Atwill bringing doom and gloom to Baker Street, foreseeing such murder attempts and explaining to Holmes the legend of the hound of the Baskervilles, a wild supernatural monster that's plagued the family for a couple of hundred years.

Holmes is utterly grounded though, opening his part by deducing all about Dr Mortimer, Atwill's character, by observing the walking cane that he left behind when first visiting. A couple of minutes later he arrives in person to validate the deductions. It's good to see here in the first of the Rathbone/Bruce series that Dr Watson is not a complete idiot, though he does make a few bad calls and is certainly not in the same league as Holmes, of course. This and its prompt follow up, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were made for Twentieth Century Fox, set in the appropriate era and ran the standard 80 to 85 minutes; but from there the series shifted to Universal and a contemporary timeframe and also dropped to the 60 to 70 minute B movie length. Afficionados relish these first two especially among the rest and it's pretty obvious to see why. The budget of the Universal films dropped notably as time went on, they got further and further away from the original stories and Watson turned into a prize clown.
Greene is decent as Sir Henry Baskerville, just as the rest of the very English cast are decent too, from Wendy Barrie to John Carradine to Barlowe Borland. I say that in jest, because there's a lot of irony at play here, but the English accents are far better than they usually were during the golden age of Hollywood. Rathbone and Bruce, both perennial Hollywood Englishmen, were born in South Africa and Mexico respectively. Barrie, who shares top billing with Greene and Rathbone, was born in Hong Kong. She's Beryl Stapleton, one of Sir Henry's neighbours with whom he embarks on a romantic affair.

Carradine of course is American acting royalty, which is why his character's name was changed to Barryman the butler. We could hardly have a Carradine playing a Barrymore, the name of the character in the original novel, and that of the other famous American acting family. Barlowe Borland is as Scots as they come, admittedly playing one in Frankland, one of Baskerville's neighbours. Only Greene, Atwill and Morton Lowry were actually English, Lowry playing another neighbour, John Stapleton, Beryl's brother. All the neighbours are also suspects, of course, and Holmes works his wiles to track down the killer, using deduction, disguise and carefully contrived clumsiness to catch his man. It always surprises just how much he puts the potential victim into danger but that just adds to the excitement.

The story is hardly surprising but it's well constructed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel being adapted for the screen by Ernest Pascal, an experienced scriptwriter with credits going back to 1923. The sets are solid and believable, not just Baskerville Hall but the outdoor locations too, Dartmoor being appropriately bleak and the Grimpen Mire being suitably grim. Holmes is a dynamic soul, as physical as you'd expect when played by one of the screen's greatest swordsmen, Basil Rathbone, this attribute often being forgotten in later adaptations though apparently notably resurrected in the new Robert Downey Jr adaptation in which he becomes something of a pugilist. He's still cerebral though, that attribute hardly being an easy one to remove whoever was taking the part. 'It'll be very interesting to see if my deductions are accurate,' he tells us early on and we believed him for fourteen films. I'm looking forward to working my way through the whole bunch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rathbone and Bruce, both perennial Hollywood Englishmen, were born in South Africa and Mexico respectively.

Bruce was raised in the British Isles, since his parents were on holiday in Mexico, at the time of his birth.